The Twin Cities’ most veteran culinary instructor has been cooking since the Kennedy administration. It was 1962, says Don Wood of Hennepin Technical College, when his mother decided he needed a job. “My brother was a sous chef at the Leamington Hotel (formerly at 10th Street and 3rd Avenue South in downtown Minneapolis, built in the early 1910s). My mom said to him, ‘Can’t you get this guy a job?’ You know, I was the kind of kid who had a car, but no money to put gas in it. So they put me on as a dessert boy.”
At this point, I interject: pantry position?
“No. Dessert boy. I made $1.17 an hour, and the chef took me down into the basement, which was just reach-in freezers as far as the eyes could see. I was to fill 2,000 parfait glasses with crème de menthe. Now remember, we didn’t have soft serve back then, so we were pulling hard pack out of buckets with French knives. And every two hours the chef would come down and check that it was soft enough to roll up on all sides of the glass. I filled those for three days straight. And later I found out that this was for the Democratic national convention.”
John Kennedy purportedly slept in the hotel, but had his own mattress flown in.
Wood’s chef at the time, Pierre Portier, observed that the youngster kept coming back in spite of the adversity of the position, and eventually took the young cook under his wing. The rest, he says, (like others sucked into the business) is history.
Why did he keep coming back? “I liked it,” he says simply. Careful not to sound overly critical of his students, he does mention, more than once, that discipline is the hardest thing to teach. “Sometimes when you tell them they’ve gotta make 200 canapes (he charmingly pronounces this “canopies”) and they all have to look the same, they look at you like you have two heads.”
After putting in a couple years at the hotel, working his way up as first breakfast and then banquet chef, Wood headed out to Boston for an executive chef position at the Holiday Inn. He also did stints at the Northstar Inn and Fox & Hounds Supperclub, which he describes as a “full-service white linen restaurant with an elaborate Sunday breakfast buffet with a wonderful salad bar featuring decorated salmon as well as a seafood on ice.”
And how has the workplace changed since those days?
“Well, the hood work was low back then, and there was no air conditioning in kitchens or anything like that. So you’d be working in 120 degrees and the guy next to you would be passing out. So you’d just drag him over to the side for a little while. This was considered normal.”
These days, when he sees a new product come down the pike, like a balsamic vinegar salad dressing pearl, for instance, he’s thrilled. “We used to be cooking and prepping forever. Everything was made from scratch. Easter buffet, for instance, meant three days of just decorating turkeys and hams. Now, the equipment and product changes are tremendous.”
And yet, he adds this: “In those days there was only one way to do things: The right way. When chef Pierre decided I needed to learn how to chop parsley, I chopped parsley. All day.”
But Wood’s time in restaurants was short in comparison to 38 years in the teaching biz. He just can’t get himself to retire, he says. “I have the best job in the world. Imagine watching someone make a French bread for the first time and it turns out to be crap. Give them a couple weeks and it gets better. Then they get a chance to serve it to the public and someone tells them it’s the best they’ve ever had. You should see the light on their faces.”
Like many chefs of a generation gone by, Wood does sometimes lament the TV food culture that’s all the rage with the kids today. He’s grateful for the educational seminar that the school gives prior to enrollment. “Some do have the idea that you’re gonna be a chef right away. So you lose 10 percent right off the bat. They say, ‘You mean we gotta wash dishes?!’”
But he’s quick to point out that they’re not all that way. The rewards far outweigh the disappointments. “To be able to take all of this history and give it to somebody else, and to see the results from that. That’s what I get to do every day.”
And to the young restaurateur wannabe?
He says with a laugh: “I’d take a good look at that. I’d think it through.” He and his two brothers Bill and Jim had a brief stint with their own place in the ‘70’s, Hall of Fame in the Midway Shopping Center. “Those places own you. You’re married to them.”
Wood lasted two years and decided he was out. He has two grown kids, a boy and a girl, as well as a grandson. None have gone into the business. “It’s a tough life,” he replies, when I ask whether he advised them against it. “But I’ve been very well blessed here.”
Final advice to a young chef?
“Be true to yourself, and when you tell someone you’re going to do something, do it.”